April 29, 2007
à Dakar, ou Dakar à Paris
Unproduct is the musical alias of Finnish multimedia artist Jukka Lehmus (b. 1970), whose interdisciplinary work focuses on "The almost imperceptible / and subtle / ... the early warnings / and the small news items" (Marchsongs, 2006). Although his audio assemblages share certain characteristics with his poetic work - an attention to seemingly offhand details, and a clipped but hypnotic internal rhythm - Lehmus's sound pieces stretch time, tracing and retracing the moments that his poems catch only momentarily.
The "Radio Canvas" series (2001-2002) is arguably the most artistically significant of Lehmus's aural experiments: four long-form process pieces derived from shortwave radio broadcasts which gradually loop, unfurl, and mangle their sources. Consider them a less genteel analogue to William Basinski's "Disintegration Loops": in contrast to Basinski's purely chance-driven (de)compositions, the "Radio Canvas" pieces are more aggressive in both form and content, rawer and more disjointed, less the gentle drift of entropy and more a harsh, elemental attrition. If Basinski is the romantic naturalist whose pieces are requiems for memories which disintegrate even as they are summoned, Lehmus is Walter Benjamin's angel of progress, wreaking destruction on all that precedes him in order to make space for the future.
"Radio Canvas 3" (2002), issued per usual on Lehmus's own Linguablanca imprint, is the most focused and powerful of the quartet. It rides into view on a lopsided, clip-clopping 9/4 rhythm, like a flood-damaged print of a John Ford western played on a dilapidated projector. The loop is dusted with a light, ringing heterodyne, as if the staccato clatter of the film reel was bleeding over onto the soundtrack through a disjointed tape head; the source audio ping-pongs from the left to the right speaker, where it is manipulated in and out of phase through the use of a slapback delay. At the ten-minute mark, the piece abruptly snaps into mono, leaving only the source loop, until a Middle Eastern pop melody, played on what sounds like a harmonium or a distorted piano, sneaks into the periphery. What happens over the next minute is almost overwhelmingly dramatic: seconds later, the cowboy loop is encroached upon by a swirling, distortion-studded snatch of Senegalese shortwave. The Middle Eastern harmonium is fragmanted by female singers harmonizing on a serpentine melody; a woman's voice drifts by, distorted beyond recognition; a French-African voice calmly narrates a news bulletin from "Paris à Dakar, ou Dakar à Paris." The harmonium-piano snakes through; the spoken voices are drenched in slapback delay; the volume continues to rise, an unstoppable tide of information and assimilation. Within thirty seconds, the gain has increased fully twofold; the voices have surpassed all intelligibility; only the chant of "Paris à Dakar, ou Dakar à Paris" emerges from an oppressive whirlpool of noise. The piece is so distorted, so completely engulfed in effects, that aural hallucinations start to emerge: sirens, the collapse of buildings, needles skidding off records, symphonic snatches, pneumatic drills. By sixteen minutes, the noise qualifies as "musical" only in the most extreme of senses, as the whole collapses into stuttering, shattered convulsions every thirty seconds or so, congealing only long enough to spit out the harmonium melody and "PARIS-DAKAR-DAKAR-PARIS."
The significance of the narrative, as any racing fan will recognize, is the traditional route of the Dakar Rally, an off-road endurance race originally known as the Paris-Dakar Rally. The Dakar was appropriately founded on an accident of geography after the French motorcycle racer Thierry Sabine became disoriented in the Libyan desert during the Abidjan-Nice Rally. Sabine perished in a helicopter accident during the 1986 Dakar; fifty people have died from a remarkable array of mishaps connected with the Rally since its inception in 1979, including an uncertain number of indigenous people along the routes.
If Lehmus's source material was contemporaneous with its composition, "Radio Canvas 3" would have been composed during the final year in which the Dakar was launched from Paris, a decision since compounded by harsh criticism of the race in geopolitical, environmental, and economic circles. Many outside the profession have come to view the Dakar as a grotesque symbol of European imperialism, described by one source as "colonialism that needs to be eradicated" and by another as a "vulgar display of power and wealth in places where men continue to die from hunger and thirst."
"Radio Canvas 3" thus functions as a remarkable aural allegory of the Dakar's legacy. The opening montage of American Western music, itself a symbolic representation of nationalist might, becomes a menacing cloud of sound which inexorably engulfs the indigenous voices, the coolly indifferent purr of the newscaster, the shredded narrative of the unintelligible female speaker. As the piece snaps to a sudden and inexplicable end after twenty-three minutes, all that remains in its wake are fire-scorched fragments, ruthlessly pulverized languages, an exhaustive and exhausting psychic toll.